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Old people are out of touch with technology. That’s the stereotype, anyway. With adages like “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks” and “He can’t change, he’s already set in his ways”, many of us assume that certain pursuits are for young people only — and programming is no exception.
It’s easy to see why this mentality is so pervasive. As a relative youngster myself, the programming world evolves so quickly that even I find it difficult to keep up. Most of what I learned in school was obsolete by graduation. So if youngsters like me have trouble, is there any hope for the older generation?
Yes! If you — or someone you know — have ever wondered if you’re “too old” to start learning how to program, the simple answer is that anyone can pick it up as long as they have determination, persistence, and an open mind. The real question is, should you give it a shot?
I think you should, and here’s why.
Developing Your Mental Acuity
I started coding at the age of nine back when Gateway, Pentium, and America Online were big household brands. Again, I admit that I’m a relative youngster in the grand scheme of things, but I only bring this up to illustrate how deeply entwined I am with programming and how it has impacted me.
Over the past two decades, I’ve gone through periods of heavy coding (at my worst, I spent fourteen hours a day on my projects) and periods of no coding at all (a wonderful respite from my workaholic tendencies). In that time, I’ve noticed something peculiar.
My mind is at its sharpest when I’m working on code. Conversely, the longer I go without programming, the softer my mind gets. None of this is a real surprise.
Programming is a beautiful combination of logic and creativity. Logical in the sense that there are a strict set of rules and instructions that define the behavior of a computer program. Creative in the sense that these rules and instructions can be configured to produce an infinite number of behaviors.
Of all creative pursuits, programming is unique in that it forces you into a simultaneous process of creative synthesis and analytical diagnostics. It forces you to dream up innovative solutions and then express those solutions in a logical, step-by-step fashion. It helps structure the way you think, and this way of thinking will bleed into every area of your life.
In fact, the logical nature of programming shares a lot in common with another profession, one that happens to be dominated by older folks:
Legal work is a good example of an area with, at first glance, little in common with coding but in which coding knowledge could be surprisingly helpful, argues Eben Upton, CEO and co-founder of Raspberry Pi, an organisation that developed a revolutionary compact computer to help children learn about coding and computers in general.
“There’s a lot of similarity between the problem-solving techniques you need to be a good lawyer and those you need to be a good engineer, and the carefully crafted, (nominally) unambiguous form of English used in drafting contracts bears a lot of resemblance to computer code,” he says.
HT: The Independent
In other words, programming is good for the aging mind. As we get older, it becomes easier and easier to fall into the humdrum routine of everyday life. Outside of returning to school, there aren’t many day-to-day activities that challenge us to think like programming does.
Even if you never actually create a program worth using, the very act of learning how to program will strengthen your mental faculties. And really, that’s as good a reason as any to pick up the skill.
Expanding Your Career Opportunities
Are you stuck in a career rut? If so, learning how to program can open thousands of new doors for you, especially if you have what it takes to succeed in a tech-based career. After all, most people who learn programming are doing it so they can pursue a career in programming.
“But I’m too old for that. Nobody in IT wants to hire an oldie like me.”
While ageism is certainly an issue in our modern day workforce, it’s not as bad as some people make it out to be. While cutting-edge companies may lean towards the younger end of the spectrum, there are many other companies who emphasize experience and knowledge over sheer age. Consider Gary Huckabone:
Back on the job market, Huckabone was upbeat — he saw a thriving software sector and plenty of opportunities. But he found it took longer than expected to land his next gig. “I probably did twice as many interviews — this is a guess, of course — than I would have done if I was 32 instead of 56, ” Huckabone said.
[But] ageism is by no means an industry standard, and plenty of employers want the experience. Huckabone had multiple offers before accepting his current position.
“There’s definitely a lot of people that want the old guy, appreciate the old guy,” Huckabone said. “I’m just saying I’ve seen both sides of that coin.”
HT: Information Week
And then there are those who believe that older may even be better:
A common belief, at least in Silicon Valley, is that it is only the young who can innovate, and that therefore, we need to encourage more students to start companies. A better strategy may be to motivate and empower the old — the parents of these students, and maybe even grandma and grandpa.
To solve the big and complex problems of humanity, entrepreneurs need to have a world view and to be able to see the big picture. They need industry experience, knowledge of diverse social and scientific disciplines, and people-management skills. They need the abilities to go beyond wishful thinking, to step into others’ shoes, and to weigh likely outcomes of the options before them.
Older, experienced workers usually have many of these skills. Yes, they may lack an understanding of mobile technologies and app development, but these can be learnt in the same way that the kids learned them.
HT: PBS Newshour
Still think you’re too old to start programming? Then I urge you to look at the story of Jens Skou, the Nobel Prize winner who picked up programming at the age of 70:
In 1988, I retired, kept my office, gave up systematic experimental work and started to work on kinetic models for the overall reaction of the pump on computer. For this I had to learn how to programme, quite interesting, and amazing what you can do with a computer from the point of view of handling even complicated models. And even if my working hours are fewer, being free of all obligations, the time I spent on scientific problems are about the same as before my retirement.
HT: Nobel Prize
Not only does Jens Skou prove that it’s never too late to start anything, it’s never too late to change the world.
Understanding New Technologies
Programming has a few practical benefits that you can reap even if you don’t intend on a career path change. The simplest example is that it can help you connect with the ever-changing world of technology.
I realize that this sort of plays off of the stereotype that older folks are out of touch with technology, and I certainly don’t mean to perpetuate that myth. Plenty of younger folks are just as oblivious, if not more so, than those who are approaching retirement. However, the truth stands: learning how to code can help you understand and appreciate technology.
I say all of this as the son of immigrant parents who never had the same privilege of education that I have. To them, everything from VCRs to computers to digital cameras are nothing more than magic boxes. They have no idea how devices and gadgets work, so they have no idea how to use them.
I’m not saying that programming is necessary if, for example, you want to operate an Android tablet. What I am saying is that programming knowledge can help you to better operate that tablet.
After comparing a small sample of [senior computer training] students with a control group, researchers at the University of Miami found that after completing introductory courses, older adults were significantly more comfortable with and knowledgeable about computers and the Internet, and more likely to use them.
HT: The New Old Age
And being more adept with tablets, smartphones, and laptops means being one step closer towards improved quality of life. After all, there are so many helpful mobile apps out there begging to be installed, aren’t there?
It’s Never Too Late to Start Coding
Just be aware that programming is hard and will require some effort. Even if you aren’t meant to be a programmer, I still recommend giving it a shot. In the end, trying is more important than success.
Do you think one can be too old to start learning how to code? At what age did you start? If you’ve never programmed before, what’s keeping you from giving it a try? Share your thoughts with us in the comments below!